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Is Your Child's Class Too Big?

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Updated on Dec 18, 2009

Does class size affect student achievement? A recent report in the American Journal of Education suggests it does. According to researchers Spyros Konstantopoulos and Vicki Chung, “Class size reduction appears to be an intervention that increases the achievement levels for all students while simultaneously reducing the achievement gap.”

Konstantopoulos and Chung considered whether or not students in smaller classrooms (of 13 to 17 students) saw continued academic benefits as they graduated into the older grades

Their research reinforced a widespread conviction in education that a lower student to teacher ratio across multiple years benefits all students regardless of ability level. What Konstantopoulos and Chung showed in particular, however, is that this gain in academic attainment is even more significant in low-achieving groups.

It’s an intuitive conclusion, as smaller classes could plausibly yield more individualized instruction, fewer interruptions and more of a “learning community” feel. Many teachers report a higher job satisfaction rate when dealing with smaller class loads, and academic achievement tests seem to indicate favorable results across the board for smaller classes.

This new data on class size and the achievement gap seems to support what teachers have been lobbying over for decades. The National Education Association (NEA) website recommends class sizes of fifteen, for example, particularly in the early years. Obtaining funding for class size reduction is one of their priorities for changing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) affirms this position by offering goals and strategies for the elementary, secondary and collegiate level class size reduction in English education.

But these same goals and recommendations become troubling when attached to a price tag, and expecting a classroom with no more than fifteen students may be more of a luxury than education budgets allow. With a projected slow economic recovery, school funds are getting slashed across the nation. So what can you as a parent do to ensure that class size issues are being addressed in a sensible way at your school, regardless of the budget situation?

  • Get involved in the class size reduction movement. The NEA offers a link on their website to email members of Congress as one way of addressing the issues. Class Size Matters touts itself as “a non-profit, non-partisan clearinghouse for information on class size and the proven benefits of smaller classes.” While they are specifically advocates of change in the New York City area, their “How You Can Help” page addresses issues pertaining to class size that may inspire a grassroots effort in your own town.
  • Focus on what you can change. Remember that class size isn’t everything. After all, a 15:1 student-teacher ratio means little if those students are housed in sub-par facilities with outdated curriculum and inept instruction. If your district shows little flexibility on the issue of class size, get involved with the parent-teacher organization or the local school board and be aware of other factors that may affect your child’s education. Pay attention to things like textbook adoptions, budget override elections, etc., and make your voice heard.
  • Volunteer to help in the classroom. Nearly every teacher could use a hand in the classroom, and with class sizes topping 30, and sometimes even 40 in larger districts, most educators would welcome another adult presence in the classroom. Being that presence might help your child’s teacher to focus on students’ intellectual needs instead of housekeeping issues like paperwork or photocopying.

Studies continue to show that class size is an important factor in a student’s academic growth—and so are you. Look for ways both inside and out of the classroom to get involved as an advocate for class size reduction.

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